How Addiction Turns Into a Family Disease

by | May 16, 2016 | Addiction, Treatment | 0 comments

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Many families have found themselves fractured by the pain of addiction. (Joanna Dorota/Shutterstock)

Many families have found themselves fractured by the pain of addiction. (Joanna Dorota/Shutterstock)

We’ve talked before about the notion of addiction as a family disease. From stories of hope to the effects of a relapse on the family members, it’s a topic we’ve covered from multiple angles. Even so, there’s one thing we have never discussed, one question that may be milling through your head: Just how does addiction become a family disease in the first place? The answer is potentially more complicated than you might think.

If we are to accept addiction or alcoholism as a family disease, then we must also accept that every member of the family has played a role in the conception of the illness. This is not to say that everyone is at fault, for this would be to imply an unfair level of blame. Like any other disease, addicts and their families should not spend their time wallowing in guilt over the fact that this affliction has so gravely affected them. Assigning blame and mentally punishing oneself will do little to solve the problem that the family disease has created.

Before we can seek a solution to the problem of addiction as a family disease, we must reach an understanding regarding how it was created. We must look at the addict’s role, as well as the role played by the family. Once we understand how each member of the family has contributed to the shared disease, we can discuss how each member of the family might work together to recover as a unit. We will examine these issues below, while also discussing how families with a patient enrolled in Amethyst Recovery will be provided with resources that will aid them in their recovery journey.

The Addict’s Role in the Family Disease

The family disease is largely characterized by the pain and sorrow of watching a loved one struggle with their substance problems. (Artem Furman/Shutterstock)

The family disease is largely characterized by the pain and sorrow of watching a loved one struggle with their substance problems. (Artem Furman/Shutterstock)

During our periods of active substance abuse, addicts and alcoholics can have a profound impact on the ones we love. We may invoke their help on a number of occasions, or we may push them away. In either case, we will be adding to the significant harm done to all when addiction becomes a family disease. Parents, siblings, spouses and children will all fall prey to our disease as it changes the state of the family’s relationships with one another. And regardless of the specific symptoms of the disease, they will likely grow worse with time.

In the event that we have beseeched their help for our legal issues, our career struggles, or simply the profound lack of life skills we tend to display when under the influence of drugs and alcohol, the family disease will largely be characterized by codependency. We need our families to look after us, and they need to feel that we will be okay. This locks us into a seemingly never-ending cycle of give and take, in which our families are the sole givers and we are the sole takers. And when they finally stand up for themselves and decide to stop giving, we will often meet this decision with anger.

We may find ourselves similarly angry if we have characterized the family disease as one of isolation. Despite our efforts to push our loved ones away, we may find ourselves suffering great anger or depression when we realize that they will not be there at our beck and call the moment we decide to change our minds. And even if we have a large family, they will feel a bit more isolated as a result of having lost us. We are not the people we used to be, and any loving family is going to experience a sense of grief over this loss.

Again, we do not wish to imply fault or suggest that addicts and alcoholics are single-handedly wreaking havoc on their families. When we describe addiction as a family disease, we mean just that. The addict suffers as much from their own substance abuse as the family suffers from watching it, even if they may not always be aware of the degree to which their addiction is harming them at the time. And in many ways, the family may lack awareness in a very similar fashion.

The Family’s Role in the Family Disease

The lost child is one of the most tragic roles we often see in families suffering from the disease. (altanaka/Shutterstock)

The lost child is one of the most tragic roles we often see in families suffering from the disease. (altanaka/Shutterstock)

As a collective unit, everyone plays a part in the formation of the family disease. We noted two broad categories of addictive families above—those which are characterized by codependency, and those which are characterized by emotional isolation. But these categories depend largely upon the addict’s behavior. When we start breaking down the roles of individual family members, things begin to get a bit more complicated. The most obvious role played by family members is the role of the enabler, who will either meet the addict’s demands for help or give them their space when they request it. But families can actually play significant roles without enabling at all.

For instance, there are the roles of the hero, the mascot and the scapegoat. These roles are generally played by children or teenagers. In some cases, they are the sons or daughters of the addict or alcoholic. If the addict is younger, then they will likely be siblings. They are very different roles, but each impacts the family disease in a similar manner by essentially drawing attention away from the issues caused by the dependent. The hero does this by helping to support the family and essentially cleaning up the mess caused by the dependent. The mascot does this by attempting to keep everyone happy and entertained, essentially acting as a distraction from the turmoil of the family disease. And the scapegoat is more or less the opposite of the hero, creating an outlet for everyone’s frustrations by getting into trouble.

There is another role often played by children as well, although this role varies significantly from those above. This is the lost child, the family member who often remains quiet and endeavors not to draw attention to themselves. They may want attention, but may feel that it is not their place to interfere with the family and their struggles with the dependent in their midst. And whether the lost child is consciously trying to stay out of everyone’s way or simply getting lost in the fray, they may harbor some resentments against the addict or alcoholic for the loneliness that has been caused. It’s worth noting that the lost child, despite the title given to them, may also be a parent who feels that their own needs within the family have been ignored by the caretaker/enabler.

The roles above are commonly accepted, but they do not necessarily encompass every thought or behavior exhibited by individuals affected by the family disease. Also worth noting is the fact that one person can easily play multiple roles. The scapegoat or hero may feel a bit like a lost child at times, and the enabler may occasionally play the part of the hero as well. Do not feel bad if you see yourself in one or more of these roles. Instead, take solace in the fact that both the family and the addict can seek help in recovering from the disease.

Treating Addictive Families at Amethyst

With help from Amethyst Recovery, the family may recover to the point that no one on the outside would ever guess that there had been a problem in the first place. (martinlubpl/Shutterstock)

With help from Amethyst Recovery, the family may recover to the point that no one on the outside would ever guess that there had been a problem in the first place. (martinlubpl/Shutterstock)

So, a problem has been identified within the family. The family disease has been diagnosed, an intervention has been staged, and the addict or alcoholic has agreed to seek recovery. But what comes next?

Addicts and alcoholics will learn a great deal about how they have harmed and been enabled by their families while seeking help in our programs. While they are receiving this vital education, the rest of the family must seek help as well. Many find the strength they need to cast off their roles while attending meetings at Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, but this can take a bit of time. Furthermore, while the wonderful individuals in these groups may have a lot of experience in overcoming the roles they played in creating the family disease, not all of them know what it’s like to have a loved one in treatment. This is why Amethyst has our own support group on Facebook. It is called A Mother’s Hope, but is open to all parents regardless of sex or gender. We also have a parent alumni program in which local families may wish to become involved.

Just because you are a spouse, child or sibling does not mean that you should not consider becoming active in these groups. If you have suffered from the family disease in any capacity, you have something to offer. Addiction and alcoholism hurt more than just the parents, and every family member will need to call on the collective strength and wisdom of those who have helped their families through the recovery process.

If you have any questions about the manner in which Amethyst addresses the issue of addiction as a family disease, feel free to contact us today. We will provide you with any resources and information that we feel may help your cause. In the meantime, remember to remain strong. Once you have identified your role in the family disease, there are bright days ahead of you. Never give up hope that recovery is possible, if only you are willing to work at it.


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